Radical Ontology (Draft of Truth and Context, Chapter One (2001))
What follows might be characterized as an exercise in ‘radical ontology.’ My primary thesis is that the relation between world, language, and us cannot be understood in the absence of an adequate ontology of ‘us.’ My primary aim is to outline what such an ‘adequate ontology’ might look like, and the relation between world, language and us that follows from it. What makes this an exercise in radical ontology is that it constitutes a drastic, wholesale revision of the implicit and explicit ontological assumptions held by most contemporary philosophers.
In this sense, it bears certain similarities to Heidegger’s project of radical ontology. Here, as in Heidegger, radical ontology is motivated by two fundamental premises: the claim that our ‘default ontologies’ constrain our philosophical practice, and the claim that the default ontology of the philosophical tradition actually precludes, rather than facilitates, any genuine understanding of ourselves. The former claim is relatively uncontroversial: it merely amounts to the admission that our implicit commitments regarding ‘what is’ constrain the ‘field of possible justification.’ If we initially conceive of ourselves, for instance, as isolated minds whose relation to the world is mediated by representations, then our attempts to clarify intentional phenomena, and so come to a genuine understanding of ourselves, must be limited to the field of possible justifications opened by this initial ‘ontological outline.’ The latter claim, however, goes one step further, asserting that the fields of possible justification opened by our existing ontological outlines are incapable of delivering genuine self-understanding. Radical ontology is motivated, then, by the hope that a radically different set of explicit ontological commitments will allow ‘genuine self-understanding’ to enter the field of possible justification.
The similarities, however, end here. For Heidegger the ‘ontological distortion’ which burdens the tradition is primarily revealed by the history of philosophy, by the ‘obliteration’ of what he calls the difference between Being and beings–the ‘ontological difference.’ At least two problems arise as a result. First, by motivating his radical ontology through what amounts to a contentious historical thesis, Heidegger makes it easy for his critics to simply ‘pull the rug out’ from beneath his project. Second, this account forces him to peg the possibility of genuine self-understanding on the recovery of the ‘meaning of Being,’ Given the lack of cognitive constraints that characterizes any discussion of ‘Being,’ his ontology becomes too radical, such that, even though his work putatively shares the same locus as the tradition–the problem of understanding ourselves–it becomes lost in an orgy of ontological innovation, until the very thing to be understood can scarce be recognized as ‘ourselves.’ Moreover, it becomes difficult to determine what, if any, criteria constrain ‘genuine self-understanding.’
In the present study, however, radical ontology is motivated by the possibility, not the historical fact, that most contemporary philosophers are, as Wittgenstein would say, ‘held captive by a picture.’ The mere possibility that our default ontologies open fields of possible justification where genuine self-understanding is impossible is more than enough to warrant ‘ontological experimentation.’ Given that this possibility cannot be ruled out, the motive for resorting to radical ontology is secure.* In the absence of a historical ‘master thesis,’ the possibility of genuine philosophical self-understanding can then be straightforwardly pegged to the resolution of the very thing that prevents it: philosophical problems. And the cognitive status of the resultant ‘genuine self-understanding’ can then be partially secured by the account’s ability to overcome traditional philosophical problems.
I say ‘partially secured’ because there is a serious question whether the kind of radical ontological project undertaken here can be called ‘cognitive’ at all. In one sense, it simply seems obvious that our contributions to the great discussion depend on implicit ontological ‘outlines,’ on some ‘fore-understanding’ as Heidegger would put it, of the general shape of things and our relation to them. Even Wittgenstein, on a non-quietist reading at least, can be characterized as a ‘radical ontologist’ in this sense, as someone who resolves philosophical problems through the elaboration of a ‘radical’ ontology. Where Heidegger, reducing all ontological distortion to a single problematic, disparages the ‘metaphysics of presence’ on the basis of a revised ontological understanding of Dasein, Wittgenstein disparages the ‘traditional picture’ on the basis of a revised social ontological understanding of language use.
But the example of Wittgenstein simply underscores the problem. An advantage, for instance, that social ontologists such as Dewey, Wittgenstein, or Brandom possess over the kind of ontological interpretation undertaken by Heidegger is that their ‘ontological interpretations,’ by and large, qualify as intentional explanations. Social ontology explains semantic phenomena, and so provides genuine self-understanding, in terms of the intentional relations between individuals.
Since the ontological interpretation undertaken here, however, amounts to an explanation of intentionality, it cannot, obviously, be a species of intentional explanation, nor can it be a species of causal explanation, insofar as intentionality continues to resist, for better or for worse, reduction into causal terms. But if the ‘explanation’ undertaken here is neither intentional nor causal, then what kind of explanation is it? And why, for that matter, should we consider it to be ‘explanation’ at all?
The threat, in other words, is that exercises in radical ontology amount to little more than ‘metaphysics’ in its pejorative sense, noncognitive word games that generate grandiose illusions rather than genuine instances of self-understanding. Where there is no true explanation, the critic might say, there is no true understanding.
In the hermeneutic tradition stemming from Heidegger’s radical ontology, the problem of the status of ontological interpretation is resolved, on the one hand, by a retreat from explanation to ‘clarification’ or ‘explication,’ and on the other, by an appeal to the apparent ‘fundamental’ status of ontological interpretation, to the fact there is ‘no escaping’ implicit ontological commitments, and that these commitments determine the field of possible justification, whether that justification takes the form of intentional or causal explanation. Ontological interpretation, in other words, becomes a clarification of the fundamental ontology that make various fields of causal and intentional explanation possible.
But this ‘resolution’ raises more questions than it answers. Since the possible resolution of philosophical problems motivates radical ontology, the construal of ontological interpretation as ‘clarification’ seems appropriate enough. But what does ‘ontological clarification’ mean? The meaning of ‘conceptual clarification,’ for instance, seems clear. Even though conceptual analysis has been largely abandoned as a philosophical project, its local utility in the facilitation of understanding remains an indispensable part of philosophical practice. Vagueness, equivocation, and the like remain as much a barrier to understanding (that is, adequate explanation) now as they did before Wittgenstein. Ontological clarification, on the other hand, supposedly clarifies our ‘ontological self-understanding,’ the assumption being that intentional and causal explanation are inadequate to this task. Where conceptual clarification seeks to facilitate causal and intentional explanation, ontological clarification circumvents them altogether. And in this sense, the shift from ‘explanation’ to ‘clarification’ begins to seem more than a little tendentious, a verbal attempt to dodge the dubious prospect of providing a non-intentional, non-causal explanation which is nevertheless cognitive.
The cognitive status of conceptual clarification is secured by the role it plays in argument and explanation. The proper or ‘clear’ use of concepts is an important condition of the cognitive adequacy of any argument for or explanation of what is the case. Since ontological interpretation, however, purports to ‘clarify’ who we are, which is to say explicate the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’ of argument and explanation, its cognitive status cannot be secured by the cognitive status of the resulting ‘explanations,’ since it is the cognitive status of these non-causal and non-intentional ‘explanations’ which is in question. The cognitive status of ontological interpretation, rather, is purportedly secured by the ‘priority of the ontological,’ by the alleged existence of fundamental facts that escape explanation in anything other than non-intentional and non-causal terms because they precede the possibility of any intentional or causal self-understanding.
But what, particularly in the wake of science, could these ‘fundamental facts’ be? One could insist, for instance, that the dependency of scientific explanation on a prior ‘physicalist ontology’ points to the existence of facts that precede the possibility of causal explanation. But since ‘radical ontological interpretation’ is motivated by the suspicion that our existing ontologies are incapable of providing adequate self-understanding, this example merely compounds the problem. Certainly the cognitive adequacy of scientific explanation attests to the cognitive adequacy of a physicalist ontology. In isolating the fundamental facts needed to justify the defection from causal explanation, it seems, radical ontological interpretation is stripped of its motivation.
The only way the radical ontologist can recover this motivation is to argue that a physicalist ontology precludes adequate self-understanding in spite of the unquestionable cognitive status of the scientific explanation it makes possible. And this, strangely enough, is far less difficult than it appears. The radical ontologist, for instance, might argue that since adequate self-understanding depends upon an adequate understanding of ourselves as normative beings, and since physicalist ontologies preclude any understanding of ourselves as normative beings, physicalist ontologies preclude adequate self-understanding. The radical ontologist, in other words, can appeal to apparent fundamental facts, such as those involving normativity, that resist scientific explanation. He or she can then insist that since we are more than the sum of our scientific self-explanations, that we must resort to ‘ontological self-explanation.’
Although I do not endorse the above argument (the inability of science to explain normativity might speak more to the present inadequacy of neurophysiological explanations than it does to the inadequacy of any underlying physicalist ontology),* it at least makes explicit the drastic stakes involved in the issue at hand. The question of the cognitive status of ontological interpretation depends, it seems, on some resolution of perhaps the most vexing of all philosophical aporias: the mind/body problem. To say that radical ontological interpretation answers to fundamental facts about us that escape causal explanation is to say that, whatever we may be, we are more than our brains.
The hermeneutic strategy, then, is to posit a realm of facts, facts crucial to our self-understanding, that precedes or otherwise escapes causal explanation because we are more than our brains. This, I believe, is the strategy implicitly adopted by Heidegger in his explication of ontological interpretation and the relegation of science to a mere ‘ontic’ discipline.* It is not, however, quite the strategy adopted here. I do not think, in the end, that the ‘mind’ is anything distinct from the brain, although I do think it may, in a certain respect at least, resist scientific explanation. Although we are nothing more than our brain, there are facts about ourselves that ‘escape’ scientific explanation.
Perhaps the most economical way to understand what I mean here is to briefly consider the ‘Knowledge Argument’ against physicalism originally posed by Frank Jackson (although later repudiated by him).* Jackson postulates a neuroscientist, Mary, who learns the entire neurophysiology of the colour red in an entirely colourless environment. After learning all the neuroscientific facts regarding red, Mary then leaves this environment and experiences red for the first time. If it is the case, as Jackson supposes, that Mary learns a new fact regarding red, namely, what it is like to see red, then it would seem that certain facts regarding red transcend our neurophysiological knowledge of red. Since not all facts regarding red are physical, Jackson concludes that physicalism is false.
The importance of this thought experiment, I think, lies not so much in its alleged repudiation of physicalism as in its exhibition of an important distinction already stressed by Thomas Nagel: there is a crucial difference between knowing a neurophysiology and undergoing that neurophysiology. Mary’s purported ‘gain in knowledge’ is underwritten by the difference between knowing the neurophysiology of red and undergoing the neurophysiology of red. Mary’s theoretical knowledge of red, we might assume, consists in undergoing a ‘meta-neurophysiology’ that is somehow ‘about’ the neurophysiology associated with red. Mary’s experiential knowledge of red, on the other hand, consists in actually undergoing this latter neurophysiology.1
As Wittgenstein might say, there must be a way of grasping a neurophysiological relation to the world which is not a meta-neurophysiological grasping of this relation, but which is exhibited in what we call ‘seeing red’ and ‘knowing the neurophysiology of red’ in actual cases. The neurophysiology of red as undergone, one might say, is constitutive of Mary’s intentional relation to red objects in the world, where the neurophysiology of red as known is not. What we have here, then, might be understood as a difference in constitutive neurophysiological perspectives: a constitutive neurophysiological perspective on the neurophysiology of red and a constitutive neurophysiological perspective on red things in the world. Given this, the fact that Mary ‘learns something new’ when she leaves her colourless environment is almost trivial. In the first instance Mary possesses a constitutive neurophysiological perspective on the neurophysiology associated with retinal exposure to electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 650nm, whereas in the second instance she possesses a constitutive neurophysiological perspective on, say, a red Camaro. Her neuroscientific knowledge ‘falls short,’ then, because these are two different perspectives on two different things: a constitutive ‘meta-neurophysiological’ perspective on the neurophysiology of red is clearly not a
a constitutive neurophysiological perspective on a red Camaro.
What renders this ‘cognitive shortfall’ mysterious, however, is that her former meta-neurophysiological perspective is a perspective on her constitutive neurophysiological perspective on red things in the world. From the neuroscientific standpoint, ‘red’ simply is a type of neurophysiological relation to objects that reflect light with a wavelength of 650nm. And indeed it is precisely this neurophysiological relation that Mary undergoes when she sees the red Camaro. So then how is it that Mary learns something new about red when she finally undergoes this neurophysiology?
The first thing to note is the role intentionality plays in this problem. Knowing the neurophysiology of red requires a certain constitutive meta-neurophysiological perspective on the neurophysiology of red. Our brain, one might say, relates to itself as another object in the world, that is, as other to itself. This is why all our knowledge of our own neurophysiology–this neurophysiology, the ‘buzzing brain’ reading these very words–is analogical. We see what is before us and map it ‘behind us,’ as it were.
Given this, the crucial question becomes one of why we require a constitutive meta-neurophysiological perspective on the neurophysiology of red in order to adequately know what red is in the first place. In other words, why must we undergo a different constitutive neurophysiology in order ‘to know’ the neurophysiology of red? Why isn’t the simple undergoing of the neurophysiology of red enough to tell us everything we need to know about red?
The fact that an entirely different constitutive meta-neurophysiological perspective is required to know the neurophysiology of red demonstrates, I think, something absolutely crucial: that the constitutive neurophysiology we undergo is not self-related in the same manner that it is other-related. Our awareness of red as part of a unified field of experience requires that the constitutive neurophysiology undergone be reflexive in some sense. What Mary learns about red in undergoing the constitutive neurophysiology of red, then, is simply this self-relation. The reason this self-relation eludes her prior to undergoing this neurophysiology is simply that she is undergoing a different constitutive neurophysiology, the neurophysiology of ‘neuroscientific knowledge,’ with its own neurophysiological self-relation, or as we are wont to say, its own ‘phenomenal character.’
The crux of the mind/body problem now comes into focus. Even though, from the neuroscientific standpoint, red simply is a type of neurophysiological relation to objects that reflect light with a wavelength of 650nm, from the standpoint of undergoing this neurophysiology it is something quite different: a ‘phenomenal’ property of certain objects in the world. But where the former standpoint is a cognitive accomplishment, a constitutive neurophysiological perspective that is sure to transform as we extend our understanding of the brain, the latter standpoint, by contrast, is fixed. Our ability to adjust our constitutive neurophysiological relation to ‘other things’ in the world, one might say, always outruns our ability to adjust our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation. Thus, even though we can ‘see what is before us and map it behind us,’ our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation remains unchanged. No amount of scientific explanation can change the fact that we see red Camaros.
As a result, the so-called ‘phenomenal perspective,’ that is, the standpoint of undergoing our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our neurophysiological other-relation, begins to take on the character of an ‘ontological bastion,’ an alternate realm rather than merely an alternate neurophysiologically realized perspective. Traditionally, we refer to this realm as ‘mind,’ and we feel the need to contrive sophisticated accounts of how this ‘mind’ is ontologically and causally related to the ‘brain.’ Different neurophysiologically realized perspectives are collapsed into ‘mind states’ and ‘brain states,’ and the innocuous problem of harmonizing different views of the same thing becomes the insuperable problem of transforming different things into the same thing. But there is, in fact, no mind/body problem, because there is no such thing as ‘mind’ as it has traditionally been understood.
At first glance, this resolution of the mind/body problem into different neurophysiologically realized perspectives on our neurophysiology might seem an eminently counter-productive way to secure the cognitive status of ontological interpretation as a species of noncausal explanation. For as should be apparent, just what ‘undergoes’ the neurophysiology of any given ‘phenomena’ is nothing other than our greater neurophysiology. Since the question at issue in radical ontology is the question of the adequacy of our ontological self-understanding, and since we simply are a certain neurophysiology in a certain environment, one might assume that the inadequacies of our ontological self-understanding are due solely to our incomplete scientific picture of our brain. What we need, the suggestion seems to be, is more science, not more philosophy.
But the understanding at issue in radical ontology, recall, is self-understanding, and as the above consideration of the Knowledge Argument suggests, our self-understanding is fundamentally bifurcated. If the question of adequate self-understanding is one of the adequacy of our discursive self-understanding with respect to our constitutive neurophysiological other-relation to our neurophysiological make up, then the question is indeed scientific. If, on the other hand, the question is one of the adequacy of our discursive self-understanding with respect to our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our constitutive neurophysiological other-relation, then the question is at once scientific and philosophical: scientific because the actual neurophysiology undergone can only be explained scientifically, and philosophical because the constitutive neurophysiological undergoing of this self-relation from the standpoint of this undergoing precedes scientific explanation.
For instance, in undergoing a constitutive meta-neurophysiological other-relation to the neurophysiology of red, Mary also undergoes a constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to this other-relation, one which leads her to characterize her constitutive meta-neurophysiological other-relation as ‘knowledge,’ and hence places it in the all important ‘space of justification.’ In other words, our implicit self-understanding of our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our constitutive neurophysiological other-relation as ‘knowledge’ is what allows causal explanations to exhibit ‘cognitive status’ in the first place. Without a prior normative, which is to say, non-neurophysiological, understanding of the status of neuroscientific claims, then, it simply makes no sense to assert that we are our brains.
Although the aporia of the mind/body relation can be resolved, the powerful irony generated by this resolution, it seems, cannot. The irony is simply this: although we simply are our brains, the justification of this explicit self-understanding as cognitive is constituted by a different level of implicit self-understanding, a ‘fixed’ level where, although realized by our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our constitutive neurophysiological other-relation, our neurophysiological constitution falls out of the picture. To the extent that this level, so far anyway, constitutes a fixed condition of any causal explanation whatsoever, its neuro-causal explanation cannot replace it.2
As understood here, then, ontological interpretation is directed at the fixed level of implicit self-understanding realized by our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our constitutive neurophysiologically mediated relation to the world. In contrast to the Heideggerean understanding of ontological interpretation, it is at once prior to and posterior to causal explanation: prior in the sense that it constitutes a ‘fixed condition’ of causal explanation, and posterior in the sense that it admits possible causal explanation as neuroscience matures.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate what I mean here is to consider freedom, the ‘phenomena of consciousness’ that seems most resistant to the possibility of ‘deterministic’ scientific explanation. I literally believe that our ‘inner sense’ of freedom can and will be given a neuro-causal explanation. Our self-understanding of freedom, I think, will be shown to arise from the structural limitations placed on our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation due to what might be called ‘process asymmetry.’ We ‘experience’ our neurophysiological relation to the world because this relation includes a neurophysiological self-relation, which when disabled leads to dramatic pathologies such as ‘blindsight,’ the ability of individuals blinded by damage to the primary visual cortex to still reliably track objects they cannot see. What pathologies such as blindsight suggest is that our overall neurophysiology ‘self-relates’ by means of more or less discrete components of itself. The brain, in other words, can only track itself through neurophysiological extensions of itself, and one can easily envisage the evolutionary ‘stacking’ of these extensions as our neurophysiological ability to self-relate improved our ability to successfully adapt to our environments and assure the transmission of genetic material. What constitutes our neurophysiological self-relation from the standpoint of our global neurophysiology, in other words, is actually an other-relation from the standpoint of our local neurophysiology. The only way to expand this self-relation, then, is through the extension of our neurophysiology. The problem, however, is that as this self-relation to our neurophysiology expands, so too does our neurophysiology. The more our brains are able to self-relate, the more brain there is to self-relate to.
The basic idea behind process asymmetry is that information processors are fundamentally unable to process their own processing simultaneous to that processing. They are essentially ‘blind’ to their immediate processes. They may be linked to other processors that can process their processing as it is processed, but these extended processors are likewise blind to their own processing, and taken as a whole, simply add to the amount of unprocessed processing.
Our self-sense of freedom, I think, will be shown by neuroscience to be a direct result of this structural blindness to our neurophysiological determination.* [normativity] But this does not mean we are only ‘provisionally free’ pending a neuroscientific explanation of our self-sense of freedom. From the fixed standpoint of our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our constitutive neurophysiological relation to the world, we can only conceive of ourselves as free. We are, strangely enough, causally determined in such a manner that we must be free. Moreover, it is only from the fixed standpoint of this freedom that we can make sense of the neuro-causal explanation of freedom as knowledge, insofar as knowledge remains unintelligible in the absence of normativity and normativity remains unintelligible in the absence of freedom.
This is the sense, then, in which certain facts about us ‘escape’ causal explanation. ‘Escape,’ here, does not imply, as it does in Heidegger, that these facts, as the condition of possibility of causal explanation, can never be given a causal explanation. It implies, rather, that the possibility of neuro-causal explanations of certain features of our implicit self-understanding in no way alters the fact that this implicit self-understanding, as fixed, is thrust upon us by our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our neurophysiological relation to the world, such that the very intelligibility of such possible neuro-causal explanations, at least for the foreseeable future, depends upon it.
This is all that is required, I think, in order to secure a region of explananda for ontological interpretation. In keeping with the hermeneutic tradition, general ontological interpretation as understood here explains fundamental features of what Husserl calls the lifeworld, the pregiven “realm of original self-evidences.” (367*) This world is ‘pregiven’ in at least two respects: insofar as scientific understanding of the world is a cognitive accomplishment, and insofar as this scientific understanding qua knowledge depends upon a ‘phenomenal self understanding’ it cannot as yet explain. But where the hermeneutic tradition understands the nomologico-physical world of science as a ‘mere aspect’ of a more fundamental lifeworld (as though the unquestionable objectivity the former was somehow preempted by the questionable objectivity of the latter), I understand the lifeworld to be a ‘fundamental aspect’ of a more fundamental nomologico-physical world: an ‘aspect’ because the world revealed by our ‘scientific perspective’ is obviously more objective than the world revealed by our ‘phenomenal perspective,’ and yet ‘fundamental’ because the phenomenal perspective nevertheless remains the ‘fixed ground’ of our scientific perspective. Husserl, the early Heidegger, and their hermeneutic successors, on this account, simply mistake the fixity of our neurophysiologically realized phenomenal perspective for the out and out ontological priority of the world revealed by that perspective.
But securing a region of explananda is only one step toward securing anything resembling cognitive status for ontological interpretation. The fact that certain ‘lifeworld explananda,’ such as freedom and normativity, require non-causal understanding tells us nothing about what constitutes such understanding, and assurances of the ‘primal validity’ of the phenomena so understood in no way secures the validity of our explanations of these phenomena. How could a non-causal and non-intentional explanation, one might ask, lead to anything other than a non-cognitive ‘mystical’ understanding of ourselves? We need to turn our attention to the explanans, and in the absence of any scientific account, provide an intuitive understanding of the understanding it engenders.
Consider the following example of ontological interpretation drawn from Gadamer’s Truth and Method:
In fact the horizon of the present is continually in the process of being formed because we are continually having to test all of our prejudices. An important part of this testing occurs in encountering the past and in understanding the tradition from which we come. Hence the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the horizon of the past. There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. Rather, understanding is always a fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves. (306)
This passage follows an account of the way in which Heidegger’s radical ontology allows hermeneutics to understand time not as an obstacle to be overcome by understanding but as the constitutive basis of that understanding. Insofar as it purports to provide ‘genuine self-understanding’ (of understanding itself, in this case), it is an instance of explanation. But it is not, as should be obvious, an instance of causal or intentional explanation. It explains understanding rather, not through the provision of causes or of reasons, but through the provision of analogies.
This instance of ontological interpretation, in other words, is literally an explanation of ‘what understanding is like.’ Understanding is something like the ‘fusion’ of the ‘horizons’ of the past and present. Of course much more ‘onto-analogical’ work is required before this likeness can provide understanding of understanding. Thus one finds Gadamer preparing for this explanation by analogically explicating his analogies:
Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of ‘situation’ by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence, essential to the concept of situation is the concept of ‘horizon.’ The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of the narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. (302)
Here Gadamer is explicitly involved in conceptual definition. ‘Situation’ is defined by analogy to ‘a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision.’ ‘Horizon’ is then defined by analogy to ‘the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.’ This analogical understanding is then ‘applied’ to the ‘thinking mind,’ that is, to our understanding. By taking these analogies to the above explanation of understanding, we can see that the horizon of our present standpoint is fixed by our prejudices, and since we are continually transforming our prejudices, we are continually transforming our present range of vision. Since the transformation of our prejudices primarily occurs in our present confrontation with the past, the horizon (or range of vision) of our present standpoint is transformed by the horizon of our present standpoint on the past. Our present standpoint, in other words, is transformed by its own vantage point on the past. It is the fusion of these supposedly distinct ranges of vision (‘supposed’ because they are actually moments of the same standpoint) that constitutes historical understanding.
Ontological interpretation, here, actually consists of what might be called ‘analogical explanation’ of historical understanding, an explanation, in other words, of ‘what understanding is like.’ What Gadamer does in effect is transform our implicit understanding of his analogues into an explicit understanding of historical understanding. What renders this analogical explanation ontological is simply the explanandum: the fundamental structure of our historical understanding.
Ontological interpretation, then, consists in the analogical explanation of ‘what x is fundamentally like’ from the standpoint of our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our neurophysiological relation to the world. It simply takes our implicit understanding of certain phenomena, such as possessing a ‘range of vision,’and applies it to a fundamental phenomena such as historical understanding. Ontological interpretation analogically explains, in other words, the very thing that scientific explanation cannot: what it is like to constitutively undergo the neurophysiology we do.
The central question, however, is one of what renders ‘onto-analogical explanation’ cognitive. Although ‘analogical understanding’ undoubtedly plays a legitimate role in pretheoretical cognition–we successfully explain things by reference to ‘what they are like’ all the time–there is a serious question as to its legitimacy as a mode of theoretical cognition. Understanding, after all, is also ‘like’ innumerable things aside from a ‘fusion of horizons.’ What privileges, one might ask, the analogical understanding of understanding as a fusion of horizons over other such analogical understandings of understanding as, say, the correspondence of our representations to the world, or grasping the world from the standpoint of God?
A more threatening version of question would be to ask what privileges onto-analogical understanding over poetic understanding. After all, analogical relations of resemblance would seem to underwrite both.* What distinguishes Gadamer’s analogical explanation of understanding from a ‘mere poetic exploration’ of the understanding is its material inferential articulation. By this, I do not simply mean Gadamer deploys his analogical explanations within an argumentative framework. Given poetic premises, the propriety of the inferences made in no way secures the cognitive status of one’s conclusions. What I mean, rather, is the way in which our commitment to a given analogically explicated ontology restricts us to certain fields of possible justification. An analogical understanding of our relation to the world as that of an ‘inside’ over and against an ‘outside,’ for instance, possesses a host of material inferential implications and incompatibilities, including such things as the ‘problem of the external world’ and the ‘problem of other minds,’ and so on. Gadamer’s characterization of understanding as a ‘fusion of horizons’ itself follows from the ontology elucidated by Heidegger in Being and Time. Insofar as material inferences rather than mere associations govern the transitions between claims in the elaboration of an ontological account, exercises in onto-analogical explanation are not poetic.
But are they cognitive?
Onto-analogical explanation in Gadamer derives its cognitive status as a heuristic, that is, as something conducive to true understanding. What prevents this analogical explanation from becoming ‘merely metaphoric,’ then, is the manner in which it makes our implicit understanding of understanding explicit. We recognize Gadamer’s onto-analogical account of historical understanding as an adequate explication of our own implicit understanding of historical understanding. We attribute cognitive status to his onto-analogical explanations insofar as we count them true or false, and we count them true or false depending on the degree to which we recognize ourselves in his account.
The difficulty here, however, is one of arbitrating between instances of recognition and misrecognition. Since the truth or falsity of Gadamer’s onto-analogical explanation, that is, its cognitive status, depends upon the truth or falsity of the understanding it provides, the inability to adjudicate the truth or falsity of the resultant understanding would accordingly threaten the cognitive status of his onto-analogical explanation. The understanding generated by his onto-analogical explanation must be secured as an instance of genuine recognition before the cognitive status of his onto-analogical explanation can be secured. But what could secure the cognitive status of the resultant understanding aside from the cognitive status of the onto-analogical means to this understanding? The problem, here, is quite clearly a variant of the problem of the criterion. It would seem that the cognitive status of his analogical explanation would need to be secured before it could be secured.
Gadamer ultimately, I think, has no way of resolving to this problem, although he would object that the problem of the criterion is merely an artifact of an inadequate ontological self-understanding. As a consequence of Heidegger’s radical ontological ‘turn’ in Being and Time, understanding is no longer to be thought of as the adequacy of an external relation between two classes of things, the world and our representations of it, but rather as the adequacy of a relation that we in fact are. (PH50). For Heidegger and Gadamer, we simply are our relation to the real world, and in this sense, we are always already ‘in the truth.’ If the question of the cognitive status of ontological interpretation seems frustratingly absent from works like Truth and Method, it is because there is, at least traditionally understood, no method, only self-validating instances of ‘being in the truth.’
The primary problem with this wholesale ontological preemption of the problem of the criterion, however, is that it contributes very little to the practical issue of resolving questions of cognitive adequacy, the very thing, one would think, that a ‘genuine understanding’ of understanding should provide. It provides no non-question-begging way of arbitrating the comparative cognitive adequacy of, say, two contradictory instances of ‘being in the truth’ with respect to the same explananda. Many philosophers, for instance, seem to ‘recognize’ the assertion, ‘Understanding is performative competence within the context of a certain practice,’ as true, and harbour severe reservations regarding Gadamer’s hermeneutic formulation of understanding. Surely both the Wittgensteinian and the Heideggerean instances of ‘being in the truth’ with respect to understanding cannot both be equally ‘genuine.’ ^ Simply adverting to a critique of the underlying ‘socio-instrumental ontology’ that underwrites this Wittgensteinian understanding is useless here, since it is the adequacy of these competing ontological accounts that is ultimately the very thing at issue.
And this illustrates the great quandary of ontological interpretation. There seems to be no standpoint exterior to a set of fundamental ontological commitments, be they implicit or explicit, from which one might arbitrate the comparative adequacy of different sets of fundamental ontological commitments. Hence, there is no non-question-begging way of securing the status of our competing ontological self-understandings as recognitions as opposed to misrecognitions. Hence, there is no way to secure the cognitive status of ontological interpretation. All we are left with, it seems, is a panoply of incommensurable quasi-recognitions underwritten by noncognitive explanations.
But there are ways to mitigate if not dissolve this quandary, for one can always ask, independent of our differing ontological commitments, just what we should expect from an ontology that provides genuine self-understanding. One would expect, for instance, that an adequate ontological account of ourselves would exhibit a certain degree of systematic comprehensiveness, which is to say, that it allows for, not isolated moments of recognition, but an inferentially interrelated series of recognitions that cover, as far as possible, the entire range of ‘life-world phenomena.’3 One would expect that it would systematically resolve long-standing philosophical problems, insofar as these problems are problems simply because they pose barriers to adequate self-understanding. One would expect that an adequate ontological account would allow for detailed diagnoses of the ontological hits and misses arising from inadequate ontological self-understandings, since, to the extent that these misrecognitions arise from the same implicit self-understanding that an adequate ontological account makes explicit, it stands to reason that something in our actual constitution renders us prone to these misrecognitions. One would expect that it would be amenable to our pretheoretical understanding of ourselves, insofar as this understanding arises from what we actually are. And one would expect, finally, that it would lend itself to our scientific self-understanding, insofar as our implicit phenomenal self-understanding is a result of our constitutive neurophysiology.
To the extent that each of these latter criterial expectations are simply specific extensions of the first, one might say that the hallmark of genuine self-understanding is simply global systematic comprehensiveness. The basic idea is relatively straightforward: that the truthfulness of a given instance of recognition can be measured by the degree to which it facilitates further instances of recognition. Misrecognition, even an interrelated series of misrecognitions, one would think, would fall short of systematic global comprehensiveness precisely to the extent that they are misrecognitions. But despite its powerful intuitive appeal, this commitment to global systematic comprehensiveness runs contrary to the contemporary suspicion of ‘systematic philosophy.’
Although the ‘pessimistic induction’ which drives this suspicion, the inference from the many failures of past systematic philosophies to the failure of future systematic philosophies, is perhaps warranted, I actually find this suspicion puzzling in the extreme. First and foremost because comprehensiveness remains, for anti-systematic thinkers, an epistemic virtue at the local level, and it is unclear how it suddenly becomes an epistemic liability when this comprehensiveness becomes ‘global.’ Second, because a similar ‘pessimistic induction’ can be made regarding philosophy at any level of systematicity. In this sense, the pessimistic induction warrants suspicion of philosophy in general and not just globally systematic philosophies. And third, because this suspicion of global comprehensiveness is not directed at the application of the same ontological commitments to a broad region of explananda, as one might think, but rather at the apparently successful application of the same ontological commitments. For system skeptics committed to the so-called ‘subject-object paradigm,’ for instance, the problem is not one of relying on one particular ontology in the attempt to explain myriad semantic and epistemological phenomena–for they are no different than the systematic philosopher in this regard–but one of relying on one particular ontology in the apparently successful attempt to explain myriad phenomena. Such apparent success could only be ‘suspicious,’ however, if the explananda of philosophy somehow essentially precluded the possibility of systematic explanation. System skepticism, then, becomes a great way to ‘explain away’ the shortcomings of one’s ontology. The inability to comprehensively explain, which is an epistemic liability in most cognitive disciplines, is perversely transformed by the system skeptic into an epistemic virtue. The world’s stubborn refusal to comprehensively yield to our understanding, the assumption seems to be, has more to do with the essential intractability of the world than with, as common sense suggests, the inadequacy of our assumptions. System skepticism, in this sense, is underwritten by a kind of ‘ontological conspiracy theory’: the failure of one’s ontological commitments to deliver comprehensive self-understanding becomes evidence for a further ontological commitment to the intractability of the philosophical explananda at issue.
Insofar as philosophy consists in the interrogation of various phenomena within the field of justification opened by implicit or explicit ontological commitments, global systematic comprehensiveness, the drawing of as many phenomena as possible under a single explanatory rubric, is, as Kant saw, the inescapable aim of philosophy. If systematic philosophy is understood as the attempt to explain as much as possible from the standpoint of certain ontological commitments, even Wittgenstein, despite his quietistic tendencies, is a ‘systematic philosopher.’ The Wittgensteinian onto-analogical insight, for instance, that language is like a game, would not be an insight at all if it failed to generate further systematically interrelated recognitions, and indeed, those recognitions, such as Wittgenstein’s account of pain, trouble philosophers most precisely where they fail to provide any recognizable self-understanding.
Despite this commitment to systematic philosophy, however, Wittgensteinian contextualists are prone to number themselves among the system skeptics. This leads to the suspicion that system skepticism has more to with the extravagant claims past systematic philosophers have made regarding the cognitive status of their philosophies than with the prospect of global systematic comprehensiveness as such. As an institution, philosophy has long since learned to be wary of such self-infatuation. As it stands, comprehensiveness is the only way to transform analogically elicited recognition into something that can secure cognitive status for philosophy. And insofar as all philosophies, on pain of claiming to be presuppositionless,* possess ontological commitments, all philosophies are systematic.
Finally, then, we are in a position to understand the significance of ontological interpretation. Ontological interpretation, as I conceive and deploy it, consists of the analogical explanation of the fundamental explananda revealed by our constitutive neurophysiological self-relation to our neurophysiological relation to the world. As in the hermeneutic tradition of Heidegger and Gadamer, it derives its cognitive status as a heuristic, which is to say, as something conducive to genuine self-understanding. Contrary to this hermeneutic tradition, however, it secures the status of this self-understanding as ‘genuine’ by exhibiting, as far as possible, those characteristics we might expect from an adequate self-understanding.
Given all of this, then, it should be clear that ontological interpretation remains a precarious enterprise, both with regards to its explananda and with regards to its analogical mode as an explanans. But insofar as 1) we possess a life-world which continues to resist scientific explanation, 2) scientific understanding finds its self-understanding as knowledge in this life-world, and 3) onto-analogical explanation can make a plausible claim to cognitive status, it remains a conditionally valid enterprise. In light of this, the very precariousness of ontological interpretation furnishes yet another motivation for the project of radical ontology. For once we acknowledge the conditional cognitive status of our fundamental ontologies, it behooves us to experiment, to continually revise our analogies and our ontologies, drastically or otherwise, in the effort to find the most robust self-understanding possible. What follows is just such an experiment, and although I believe it provides a more comprehensive self-understanding than that of its representationalist or contextualist competitors, I certainly do not believe it provides the most comprehensive self-understanding possible. It both will be and should be superceded.